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The Tour de France Winner Who Used His Bicycle to Help Save Hundreds of Jews During WWII

26 minute read
Hurowitz is a writer, investor and publisher of the Octavian Report, the quarterly magazine of ideas. His new book is IN THE GARDEN OF THE RIGHTEOUS

In 1938 Gino Bartali won the Tour de France and became one of the most famous athletes in Europe. It should have been a triumph—not only for him, but for Benito Mussolini and his Fascist regime. Sports were incredibly important to Il Duce, who is said to have proclaimed his intention to turn Italy from a nation of mandolin players into one of warriors. The propaganda machine showed Mussolini himself as a great sportsman. He encouraged participation in athletics of all kinds and closely managed physical fitness for schoolchildren. Now, in cycling-obsessed Italy, Mussolini desperately wanted victory at the Tour, the sport’s most prestigious event. Italian fans flocked to France to cheer on their countryman Bartali as he stormed through the brutal climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees. On July 31 he crossed the finish line in the famed yellow jersey of the leader. In Paris “the ovations were not only directed at the triumphant one of the Tour de France,” the Gazetta dello Sport proclaimed. “They were exalting the athletic and moral virtue of an exemplar of our race.”

But unlike other Italian champions, Bartali did not dedicate his victory to Il Duce. Largely apolitical and a devout Catholic, he was instead loyal to the church. Bartali opposed fascist doctrine and did not want to present himself as an Aryan champion. “They always tried to show off what he did as proof of what fascism could do,” one of his teammates noted. “But Bartali wouldn’t cooperate.” On Italian radio, Mussolini’s secret police complained, he “mumbled” rather than offer praise to the government. On the French radio, he merely thanked his fans. The next day, trailed by the press, Bartali went to mass at Notre-Dame-des-Victoires and laid his victory wreath at the feet of the Madonna.

The slight did not go unnoticed by Mussolini. A French cycling magazine sent a reporter to cover what it assumed would be a rapturous homecoming. “Not a cat at the train station. No organized reception. Nothing. I don’t understand,” the journalist wrote. “An Italian wins the Tour de France, he wins a sensational international victory and his compatriots—who are Latins prone to delirious joy—don’t react much at all? There’s a problem.” Mussolini canceled a special medal ceremony, and the head of the Italian Cycling Federation did not attend Bartali’s victory lap at the velodrome in Turin. The Ufficio Stampa, the official press office, gave its instructions: “The newspapers should cover Bartali exclusively as a sportsman.”

During the 1938 Tour, the first legal persecution of Italy’s Jews emerged. In May, Hitler had visited Mussolini to much fanfare, making a whirlwind tour of Italy. The dictators had not always been allies, but had re- cently collaborated during the Spanish Civil War, with Il Duce declaring that their relationship would be the “axis” around which Europe would revolve. After Mussolini visited Germany in 1937, the führer decided to reciprocate just weeks after the annexation of Austria. “Now no force can ever separate us,” Mussolini told him when they said goodbye at the train station.

In retrospect, it would be a turning point for the Jews of Italy. Many Jews had fought for Italian unification and were well incorporated into Italian society. Indeed, Mussolini had previously publicly criticized the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. But now, with Germany in the ascendant, Mussolini moved to ingratiate himself with Hitler. On the day of Bartali’s triumph in the Pyrenees, the government published the Manifesto of the Racial Scientists, declaring that Italians were Aryan, and that Jews did not belong to the Italian race. It was an ominous moment for the forty-seven thousand Italian Jews and the ten thousand others who had fled there from elsewhere. The manifesto heralded the introduction of a series of anti-Jewish laws during the next months. The Fascist Grand Council stripped Jews who had arrived after 1919 of their citizenship, prohibited all Jews from certain professions or from owning property over a certain value, and banned Jewish children from public schools. Especially in the north, anti-Semitism became rampant. Signs declared Jews and dogs not welcome in stores and cafés, and Jews were banned from parks, sports facilities, and other recreational establishments. But while foreign Jews were interned, no Jews were rounded up or deported by the Italians.

A. Hitler And B. Mussolini
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini riding in an open car, circa 1940s.Fotosearch/Getty Images

After the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, Bartali’s life became a strange combination of bicycle messenger work for the military, domestic life, and competition for several years. But after the Allies invaded North Africa at the end of 1942, the tide of the war began to shift in western Europe. Then just after midnight on July 10, 1943, Allied forces landed in Sicily, and on July 25, the day after a no-confidence vote against Mussolini by the Fascist Grand Council, King Victor Emmanuel III announced that he had arrested the dictator as he left the royal residence. Crowds celebrated everywhere. On September 3 Allied troops landed on the mainland, and five days later the new government under Marshal Pietro Badoglio signed an armistice, surrendering. Italians throughout the country again cheered. Bartali filed his discharge papers, looking forward to leaving the military for good.

The jubilation was short-lived. Two days later, Germans troops occupied Rome, Naples, and northern Italy, reinstating Mussolini in that region as a puppet, and the king fled south to Brindisi. The arrival of the Germans brought a new level of peril to the forty-three thousand Jews, both Italian and foreign, trapped in northern Italy. In November the Fascists formalized the Carta di Verona, which essentially declared Jews enemies of the state. This was not mere discrimination; Jews were now in mortal danger of deportation.

During the occupation, Bartali quietly hid a Jewish married couple he knew slightly and their ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter in the basement of an apartment he owned in Florence.

“The Germans were killing everybody who was hiding Jews,” the little boy Giorgio Goldenberg recalled. “[Bartali] was risking not only his life, but also his family.” And it would not be just the Goldenbergs. One day Bartali was at his cousin Armando Sizzi’s bike shop on Via Pietrapiana, not far from the synagogue, when there was a roundup. Bartali and Sizzi rushed outside, pushed several people who were fleeing into the store, and quickly pulled down the rolling metal shutters. When night fell, most made their way home, but two remained. One was Jewish. The other was a Romani—subject to similar persecution by the Nazis—who had fallen in love with a Florentine woman. They were both terrified to leave. Bartali and Sizzi allowed them to remain there until the liberation, bringing food and hiding the entrance by parking bicycles in front of the door.

It is likely that when he began hiding people, Bartali had already gotten involved in broader efforts to help Jews and others running for their lives. Prior to the German’ occupation, much of the work of dealing with the influx of foreign refugees in Italy had been handled by the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (DELASEM). Established by Jews based in Genoa, DELASEM was supported by donations from overseas, particularly from the American Jewish community, and was authorized by the government, which was pleased to both delegate the humanitarian issue and take a commission on all funds the organization raised.

But in 1943 DELASEM’s Jewish leadership was forced under-ground, and many of its members were arrested. They turned to the cardinal of Genoa, Pietro Boetto, who essentially had the church take over its activities. A clandestine network of church officials quickly developed throughout northern Italy, not only providing financial support to Jews but helping to hide them or smuggle them out of the occupied zone.

The seventy-one-year-old archbishop of Florience Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa was the leader of the effort for the church in Florence, where he had been approached by the local Jewish communityOrders were given to the diocese’s convents to open their doors to Jewish women and children, and a number of priests also hid Jews in churches and orphanages. The cardinal led by example and himself hid Jews on the run in his home, just as Bartali was doing. Meetings of the underground were also hosted in an archbishopric palace at Via Pucci, 2, where in November 1943, the local chief rabbi and a Catholic priest were arrested during a raid.

At around this time, Padre Rufino Salvatore Niccacci, the thirty-two-year-old father superior of the San Damiano monastery in Assisi, met with Dalla Costa to discuss the plight of some Jews who had fled there. Giuseppe Placido Nicolini, the Benedictine archbishop of Assisi, had instructed Niccacci and Father Aldo Brunacci to help hide Jews and others who had fled to Assisi. This legendary home of Saint Francis 120 miles north of Rome had a population of just five thousand, including a thousand monks, nuns, and priests, and received over two hundred thousand pilgrims a year. Though Niccacci had never seen a Jew before—indeed it was said that no Jew had ever lived in Assisi—he threw himself fully into the task. Brunacci and Niccacci arranged for clothing, housing in twenty-six convents and monasteries, and false identity papers. Over the course of the war they would hide hundreds of Jews. Not one who came to Assisi was apprehended in the nine months of its occupation.

Routes of escape were becoming more challenging. Dalla Costa explained to Niccacci that he had a group of Jews stranded from Perugia, and over forty thousand more were estimated to be in the northern sector. The Swiss border was now largely sealed, and the Germans kept a close eye on the port of Genoa. The only hope for those on the run was to either stay in hiding for the duration or try to escape to the unoccupied southern zone. Dalla Costa believed that the mountainous areas of Tuscany and Umbria were a good place for Jews and others to hide or to escape. Critical to the effort were false identity cards and he knew Assisi was quickly becoming a counterfeiting center. Dalla Costa asked for help procuring false papers for Jews in hiding. He would provide photographs, he told Niccacci, and would also arrange for the documents to be picked up by couriers.

It is reported that Dalla Costa personally recruited Bartali for the effort. He reached out to him through Emilio Berti, a pastry-shop owner who brought the cyclist to the cardinal. Dalla Costa was Bartali’s priest, spiritual guide, and close friend. And although he wasn’t the only courier in the underground, Bartali was uniquely placed as one of the few people in Italy with an excuse to travel long distances by bicycle; he would, indeed, ride forty thousand kilometers a year on his training routes. Now, he could save lives too.

Bartali would leave early in the morning, dressed in biking shorts and a jersey with his name emblazoned on the back. He did not need anyone to ride with him. An exceptional mechanic, he carried a screwdriver, wrench, and other tools, a little bit of cash, and a spare tire to handle any contingency. He would first ride from his home to the center of Florence to pick up the photographs and papers to be made into false identity cards. Sometimes he would get them from Berti. Other times they would come from a clergy member. Often Dalla Costa’s secretary, Monsignor Giacomo Meneghello, himself hid the cache under a pew at the cathedral.

Bartali would stash the documents under the seat of his bicycle or unscrew its frame, roll them up, and stuff them inside. Then he would head out on the 250-kilometer ride to Assisi. Incredibly, he would often return home the same day. His wife did not understand where he was going, but he assured her that he was just training. “He would leave the home almost daily to train,” she recalled later, and “sometimes he was away two or three days. I think he hid the truth about saving Jews to protect his family.” His admonition that she should tell anyone looking for him that he had an emergency or was going to get medicine for the baby did little to calm her fears. Bartali himself was given only limited information about the network of which he was now a part. He did not want to know the details of what the documents in his bicycle were, he recalled, “in case they catch me.”

Bartali would cycle on the often-damaged roads as far as Genoa and Rome. In Genoa, he would deliver forged documents, many used to help those fleeing for the United States and elsewhere, and pick up money that had arrived from Switzerland for the Curia in Florence. In Rome, he would see contacts in the Vatican. But Assisi was perhaps the most critical destination, where false documents were made and many Jews were in hiding.

Even in a religious town like Assisi, it would be very difficult for a celebrity like Bartali to go unrecognized, so riding by day, hiding in plain sight, was generally safer. At checkpoints he would be waved through or subjected to light chitchat about cycling. His legend had long ago made its way even into the cloisters behind the rose-colored stone buildings in Assisi. Pier Damiano, a twenty-year-old student of Niccacci’s at the monastery, remembered being stunned to see Bartali standing by a side door as he came out of his room one day, after which Damiano was sworn to secrecy by the father superior.

Bartali was frequently at the convent of San Quirico, where the mother superior, Giuseppina Biviglia, hid dozens of Jews in the guest- house and served as a conduit for false identification papers. He would ring the doorbell and head upstairs to drop off his parcels. Two nuns, Sisters Alfonsina and Eleonora, recalled Bartali coming dozens of times during the war. “He would arrive with his bicycle and would ask for the mother superior,” remembered Alfonsina. They would meet privately. “I can still see him. He was tall, strong, suntanned and had short pants.” Mother Giuseppina would record Bartali’s visits in her diary. An active member of the underground, she personally prevented the Nazis from breaking into her convent and made the dramatic decision to hide Jews, including men, in the cloister.

After meeting Giuseppina, sometimes Bartali would leave his bicycle at the convent and go to meet others in the center of Assisi. Other times he had barley coffee with Niccacci at the monastery, where he sometimes spent the night.

Having dropped off documents, Bartali would hide new batches of false identity papers made in a nearby printshop in the crossbar or handlebars of his bicycle. The counterfeiting ring in Assisi had quickly become a well-oiled machine. Sixty-eight-year-old Luigi Brizi owned a small stone-walled souvenir store on Via Santa Chiara, in a piazza opposite the Basilica di Santa Chiara, from which he also ran a foot-operated printing press. A lifelong atheist, he nonetheless played a friendly game of checkers at the Café Minerva each Wednesday with Niccacci, who one day appealed to him to make counterfeit papers for Jews in hiding or trying to escape. He struck a chord when he reminded Brizi, whose ancestors had been important local members of the Risorgimento, of the Jews’ contribution to the movement for Italian unification and independence, and of their patriotism.

Brizi agreed, but he did not want to involve his twenty-eight-year- old son, Trento, who had just returned safely from the Yugoslavian front. Several days later the young man asked his father what he was so intently working on. Brizi confessed but begged him not to get involved. “I fought for three years on the front,” Trento said. “I heard the bullets that were whistling around me and by now I am no longer afraid of anything. If you are doing something, I will do it too.” He was an expert at making the municipal rubber stamps necessary for each card. “While several of my friends climbed up into the mountains and became partisans,” Trento recalled, “I decided to stay at my print shop. My weapons against the Nazis were ink and paper.”

The first document was for a well-to-do Jewish engineering student from Trieste, Enrico Maionica, who became Enrico Martorana of Caserta, a city in the liberated zone. Maionica himself joined the effort, hiding with Niccacci’s help in a former laboratory in the cloisters of San Quirico, where he would finish the identity documents the Brizis printed by filling in information, forging signatures, and perfecting the art of applying fake seals. They created stamps for places like Sicily, Calabria, Lecce, Bari, Naples, Foggia, Taranto, and Caserta, all located behind Allied lines. Maionica procured ornate House of Savoy stamps, which he had seen on many old identification cards and which were available only to authorized printers. He also bought postage-stamp-size license tags for a few lire from Italians who no longer had cars and expertly transferred them onto the cards by soaking off the ink and regluing them. “I put three- or four-year-old tags to give them more authenticity,” he recalled. The documents would then be given to Father Niccacci or to Mother Giuseppina for Bartali to pick up, Maionica testified.

Eventually the Brizis were churning out hundreds of identity cards. “If the Nazis were to single out our print shop, we would be shot,” Trento real- ized. In early 1944 he was working on a batch of identity cards in the back of the shop and forgot to close the curtains when two German soldiers suddenly walked in. He froze with terror as one of them asked to buy images of Saint Clare for their wives. Relieved, Trento found two wooden carvings and refused payment, “a gift from Assisi to our German friends.”

Panicked, Trento rushed over to San Damiano to tell Padre Niccacci that he wanted out. “Instead, as soon as I arrived in the convent, something happened that made me forget the fear I had felt shortly before.” He was let in a side door by another monk and asked to wait in the courtyard. There, he caught sight of Niccacci talking with a young man, leaning on the handlebars of a magnificent bicycle and wearing short pants over muscular legs. “I saw him get on the seat of his bicycle and race off, from the main door, at a great speed.”

A stunned Trento asked if he had just seen Gino Bartali. Niccacci confessed that he had. He told him he must keep it a secret, and that Bartali had carried many of the Brizis’ documents to Perugia and Florence. “No one dares stop him,” he explained. Years later, Trento remembered the moment. “The idea of taking part in an organization that could boast of a champion like Gino Bartali among its ranks filled me with such pride that my fear took a back seat.”

Bartali also went on scouting missions for the underground and the partisans. On the road, he would make careful note of checkpoints and roadblocks and also relayed information from friends in the Resistance like Gennaro Cellai, the famous cobbler who made his custom biking shoes. It is also said that he served as the go-between with smugglers from Abruzzi, helping people cross the border into the Allied zone. He would be called upon by the partisans if they had an urgent warning that the OVRA (Opera Volontaria di Repressione Antifas- cista), Mussolini’s secret police, was about to arrest someone. “I was the only one,” he told his son, “that could move about at night with a certain degree of safety in Florence. My bike was in order. There were no loose screws. It was very quiet. I knew the city streets very well, I could cross it at a speed of 50 kilometers an hour. Just like in racing and despite the tram tracks, in just five minutes I could reach and give warning to anyone. Three or four times they shot at me at a checkpoint, but they never got me because I would arrive suddenly and silently and before they could realize what was happening, I was out of there.”

At least once Bartali stopped at Terontola, about halfway along the route from Florence to Assisi. The railway station at this small Tuscan town between Arezzo and Perugia was extremely busy, an intersection where Jews and dissidents on the run had to change trains. As elsewhere in Europe, train stations were the bane of a refugee’s existence, generally crawling with uniformed Fascist and German police who paced the platforms.

As part of a coordinated effort with local partisans, Bartali glided on his bicycle to the station. “My father would play the part of the great cycling champion,” his son explained. As soon as he walked in, news spread quickly throughout the town. While he greeted his friends. crowds began to form and press toward the superstar. As he signed autographs, he was offered a panini and cappuccino, and more and more people appeared. In response to the tumult, the patrolling officers approached to control the crowd (or perhaps get a glimpse themselves). While they were distracted, the partisans quickly moved the refugees from one train to another. “It was easier for the Jews to find an escape route in the midst of this artfully created bustle,” Andrea Bartali wrote. By the time the station had returned to normal and Bartali had ridden off, they were safely on their way.

By the spring of 1944, more than sixty-five hundred Jews had been deported, among them a thousand rounded up in one day in Rome, one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, and another thousand in Florence, including fifty orphans.

One day Bartali received a summons to appear with Emilio Berti before Major Mario Carità of the secret police, who, along with two hundred underlings, assisted the Nazis in pursuing Jews and partisans. Bartali was terrified when he arrived at Carità’s headquarters in a repurposed luxury apartment building on Via Bolognese, nicknamed the Villa Triste because of the cries heard from inside. Carità, it was said, made a spectacle of torture, interrogating prisoners as he indulged in gluttonous feasts, drank wine, and had Neapolitan songs played on the piano.

Bartali was taken downstairs into the coal bunkers that served as prison cells, where an array of torture instruments were on display and the sounds of screaming echoed in the air. He noticed a pile of letters addressed to him that seemed to have been intercepted by the police, and was panicked as to what they could be. Eventually Carità confronted him. After an anti-Catholic tirade, he angrily read aloud a letter from the Vatican thanking Bartali for his help. In his free time, Bartali would gather food in the countryside for the poor and send it to the Vatican, but Carità accused him of sending them weapons.

Bartali denied it, telling him that he had sent flour, sugar, and coffee to needy people. He didn’t even know how to shoot, he told Carità, and always kept his pistol unloaded in the military.

Carità looked at him. “It’s not true,” he declared. Bartali insisted it was, and Carità threw him back into the dungeon to consider his position. Bartali remained there for some time, terrified. “These were times when life was not highly valued,” he remembered. “You could easily disappear as a result of hatred, a vendetta, rumor, slander, or ideological fanaticism.”

On the third day Carità once again called him for interrogation. Bartali again explained he had just gathered food and sent it to the Vatican. Carità still did not believe him.

It was at this point that one of Carità’s men stepped out of the shadows. It was Olesindo Salmi, Bartali’s former commanding officer, who had authorized his use of a bicycle instead of a motorcycle when he was in the army so he could stay in shape. “If Bartali says coffee, flour and sugar,” Salmi declared, “thenit was coffee, flour and sugar. He doesn’t lie.”

Bartali was stunned by the intervention, then further shocked as Carità backed off and released him. Carità told him they would meet again and ordered him to remain in Florence.

“I hope I never see you again,” Bartali mumbled.

“I think that was one of the few times that he was really scared,” his son wrote later. The Bartalis moved in with Berti in Via del Corso, in the heart of Florence near the Palazzo Vecchio, an area they believed less likely to be bombed and stayed there until Florence was liberated by the Allies.

Having been robbed of his prime racing years, Bartali went on to win the Tour de France again in 1948, one of the oldest men ever to do so. Several years later he retired to the quiet life of a former athlete but remained a major celebrity. Shortly after the war, rumors were already circulating among the Florentine Jewish community about Bartali’s involvement as a courier in the underground. In 1978 Alexander Ramati, a Polish soldier and reporter who had been present at the liberation of Assisi, published The Assisi Underground, which told the tale of the underground from the perspective of Father Niccacci and included the story of Gino Bartali. “I want to be remembered for my success in sport,” Bartali told his son, “not as a war hero. Others are war heroes, those who suffered in their limbs, their minds, and their hearts. I limited myself to doing what I knew how to do best. Riding a bicycle.”

One should do good but not talk about it, he believed. “These are things that are meant to be hidden,” Bartali once said of his wartime heroics. To discuss it would be to debase it, he believed, to benefit from others’ misfortunes. “I don’t want to talk about it or act like a hero,” he said once when asked about his wartime exploits during a broadcast.

Andrea Bartali, the son of the late Italian champion cyclist and Righteous Among the Nations Gino Bartali who risked his life to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on October 10, 2013.GALI TIBBON-AFP

In his later years, Bartali’s health began to fail. “Life is like a Giro d’Italia, which seems never-ending, but at a certain point you reach the final stage,” he told a reporter. “Yes, I’ll soon be called and I’ll go up there.” He was at peace. “Heaven should be a happy place, like those green summits of the Dolomite Mountains, after you’ve rounded a hundred curves, pedaling all the way.” On May 5, 2000, he passed away at home, surrounded by his family, at the age of eighty-five.

Bartali had confided his story to his son Andrea, who remembered his father wanting to return to Assisi to see the Giotto frescoes or to visit Nicolini at San Damiano. After repeated questioning, Bartali shared details about his work during the war with his son on long trips together in Italy, Germany, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. But he told Andrea he could not tell anyone. “When the time comes to talk about these things, you will understand it by yourself,” he told him.

In 2004, when a young cyclist, Paolo Alberati, wrote his thesis on Bartali’s exploits, Andrea decided the time was right. In 2006 he published a book about his father. That year, on Liberation Day in April, the president of the Italian Republic awarded Bartali the Civilian Gold Medal for his actions. In 2013 Gino Bartali joined other members of the Assisi underground—including Niccacci and Dalla Costa—in being named as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In 2018, in a unique tribute, Bartali was made an honorary citizen of Israel, and the first three stages of the Giro d’Italia were held in the Holy Land, the first time they had ever been held outside Europe.

Precisely how many owed their lives to Gino Bartali will never be known, but it is likely several hundred. One he certainly saved was Giorgio Goldenberg, the little boy who hid in his cellar and who moved to Israel after the war and eventually became a grandfather. “Gino Bartali saved my life and saved the life of my family,” Goldenberg remembered. “He is a hero.” Bartali’s friend, the Vatican bookseller Bartolo Paschetta, had called Andrea down to Rome and told him on his deathbed, “You had a great father. You can’t know how many people he and we saved.” For Bartali, his heroics were something private and very much connected to his faith. “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum,” he told his son. But good deeds were of a different type, he believed. “These are medals that are pinned to the soul and will be recognized in the Heavenly Kingdom, not on this earth.”

Adapted from IN THE GARDEN OF THE RIGHTEOUS by Richard Hurowitz. Copyright © 2023 by Richard Hurowitz. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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